Robert Zemeckis has certainly made a reputation for himself as one of the greats of American cinema, having directed some of the most enduring films of our popular culture, from Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Forrest Gump, to name only a few. In retrospect, it seems like it was only a matter of time before he attempted his hand at the 3D filming gimmick, and I feel that my experience is somewhat lacking for having seen the film in 2D on a home television set. There are moments that were clearly intended for 3D visuals and, in a very rare circumstance, were likely greatly enhanced by the effect, but alas, the time to see that has passed. So does the film hold up even without the vertigo-inducing visuals? Well, yes and no.
It seems pretty obvious that biopics are not Zemeckis’s strong suit, as his characteristic whimsy makes its way into the life story of tightrope walker Philippe Petit in a manner that really feels intrusive and unnecessary. The first half of the film is all about Petit (a surprisingly physically agile Joseph Gordon-Levitt) making his way up in the street-performing scene and making preparations to come to America to cross the newly-erected World Trade Center towers on a tightrope. Considering that the great accomplishments of Petit’s life largely come down to one event, an entire hour of build-up feels excessive and indulgent, an attempt to make Petit seem like more of an underappreciated performance auteur than he actually was. The film even borders on megalomania with Petit breaking the fourth wall in cutaway narration with the Twin Towers looming in the background, a move that is meant to be fanciful but ultimately feels egotistic and unnecessary.
However, once the film finally gets to New York and the towers themselves, it transitions into a full-on heist movie, with Petit and his accomplices executing their mad plan to rig a wire across the towers in the covert dead of night. Until this point, Petit’s accomplices are criminally underdeveloped, yet another sign of Zemeckis’s overreliance on Petit’s supposedly overbearing personality, but by the time the heist rolls around, the character details fade into the background for some really tense stealth sequences. It doesn’t matter that you know the wire will eventually be erected; Zemeckis is a crafty enough director to give sufficient urgency to make you forget that.
And of course, the sequences where Petit traverses the wire are simply breathtaking. Zemeckis captures the sheer vertigo of being one hundred stories in the air, and even though not in 3D is still captivating on a smaller screen. This is perhaps the only time in the film where the intrusive narration is at all welcome, as Petit spends most of his time mute and evading the police waiting at either end of the wire. And aside from a couple hokey moments meant to instigate doubt or self-reflection, the excitement of the sequence is not diminished.
So all in all, the film ends up being a bit of a wash. If you’re looking for a great story with interesting characters, this isn’t really the film for you, and you’ll find the first half of the film visually interesting but not much else. However, if you are willing to sit back and wait it out, there are some fantastic heist setpieces and a visually marvelous third act just waiting to be experienced. It’s a shame that this film will no longer be shown on big screens in three dimensions as it was clearly intended to be, but if the visual marvel interests you, it’s still worth the wait.